Tag Archives: book reviews

Review: Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

Dear Mrs BirdWhat a tonic this book is. I saved it to read until one cold snowy evening last week, as the Beast from the East did its worst outside and it was an excellent decision. ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ is exactly what you would want to be reading while the elements are howling at the door. It is warm, cosy in the best sense, and full of positive loveliness.

The story is told by Emmeline Lake, Emmy to her friends, who dreams of being a journalist – a lady war correspondent (it’s 1941) to be precise – and so when she spots an advert for a junior at The London Evening Chronicle, she seizes her chance and goes for an interview. It is only when she has quit her job and told all her friends at the fire station where she volunteers, that she finds the job is actually a typist at the Woman’s Friend, an ailing women’s monthly. Not only that, but she is the junior assistant to Mrs Bird, a redoubtable creature who is the magazine’s Acting Editress and agony aunt. Furthermore, Mrs Bird has STANDARDS when it comes to the type of letter she will answer and these are very restrictive indeed.

“I hardly think the Woman’s Friend reader wants her afternoon spoilt by This Kind Of Thing, do you?”

“Affairs… losing their heads… babies… UNPLEASANTNESSES,” she boomed, pausing to let the abomination sink in. “And, even, Miss Lake… NERVES.”

Well, really. Emmy tries to make the best of it, if only to save face and also because she starts to become friends with the rest of the very small staff at the magazine. However, she regards the women in the letters very differently to Mrs Bird and, after her early attempts to get Mrs Bird to answer some of the queries fail, decides to answer the letters herself.

Emmy lives with her best friend Bunty, and friends with a wider circle of girls, all of whom are trying to make it through the bombing raids in one piece, doing their bit but still trying to have fun. Emmy’s friends at the office are friendly and full of that old fashioned ‘making the best of things’ spirit but none of this feels cliched – you immediately care for all of them and don’t mind if this all sounds familiar in a Sunday evening TV drama kind of way. Mrs Bird herself must have been great fun to write.

As you can imagine, the letter writing scheme soon has consequences but not until after a dreadful tragedy that shakes Emmy’s world.

This is a light read, easy to get through, but shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It seems so rare these days to have a book that offers comfort against dark times, and perhaps it’s exactly what we all need. Dear Mrs Bird is funny, sweet and warm, celebrating friendship and the consequences of taking a chance. Curl up and enjoy.

Dear Mrs Bird is published by Pan Macmillan on 5 April 2018. Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

Review: The Road to California by Louise Walters

Louise Walters’ third book turns out to be her first. When I finished reading this, I tweeted her to say how much I enjoyed it and she replied to say it’s been sitting in a drawer for 10 years. Would that we all had novels of such quality in our drawers!

road to californiaThe Road to California is the name of Joanna’s quilting business. She sews beautiful quilts to earn a living, recycling vintage material from charity shops. The business is named after a quilting pattern but also has relevance for Joanna, who is sheltering secrets her son Ryan knows nothing of.

The book opens with Ryan at school, teased and bullied until one day he snaps, punches his bully and is suspended. A further incident at school later sees him accidentally punch his bully’s girlfriend and Ryan is excluded from school.

His mother, not knowing what else to do, suggests two things. One is to homeschool Ryan for a while and she joins forces with flower child Sharon and her children at a weekly study group. And she also makes a call for help. Into their lives rides Lex, a motorcyclist, glamorous and wealthy. Lex and Ryan hit it off immediately, and the reader (and then Ryan) soon suspect he is Ryan’s father.

Ryan, away from school, starts to blossom, reading a lot and practising the writing his old teacher told him he had a talent for. He also starts to study with the bully he punched from school, an unlikely friendship but a rewarding one. Relationships bloom between the three of them but then tragedy strikes.

This is a character-led novel, beautifully written, and full of normal flawed people just trying to get on with life the best way they can. The relationships are excellently portrayed, and it’s an absorbing mature read. As with a patchwork quilt, there are lovely details on the smallest parts that combine to make a stunning whole. I loved how the characters interacted, how Walters manages to illustrate how the mistakes we make can lead to the memories we rely on later. It’s a lovely novel and I wholly recommend it!

Walters is the author of two previous books, Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and her self-published follow up novel, A Life Between Us. The Road to California is also published on her own imprint and is easily her best yet. It is released in paperback on 1 March. Thanks to Louise Walters for my advance copy via Netgalley.

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

evelyn hardcastleSebastian Bell wakes in a wood, yells “Anna!” and swears he saw a woman shot before his eyes. Waiting, chasing, he hears a stranger approach behind him, slip a compass in his pocket and say “east.” Bell, who can remember nothing of his life before this moment, finds himself in Blackheath, a house isolated in a forest away from the nearest village, where a house party is being held to welcome home Evelyn Hardcastle, prodigal daughter.

And so we begin. While I usually hate comparisons that mix up other books, this is kind of a mixture of The Time Traveller’s Wife and Agatha Christie, but with an added touch of violence and nastiness not found in either. It’s all plot and a twisty, turny, details based plot at that, where everything could have significance so after a while you have no idea what is important and what isn’t.

Bell, it turns out, is merely a handy body for someone called Aiden Bishop to inhabit for a while. Aiden has been placed in Blackheath to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle who will die later that evening. Aiden gets to inhabit eight different bodies of guests at the party and use them to try and work out what is going on. He has been given his mission by a mysterious Plague Doctor, who must be told by 11pm who the murderer is, otherwise Aiden will be condemned to repeat the day all over again, but remembering nothing, until he gets it right. But, there are further twists. Aiden is not the only one trying to find out the answer; he’s in competition with others to find it and make his escape, and he must do so before he runs out of bodies to inhabit for there is a terrifying footman chasing him down ready to kill his hosts.

Confused? You will be. And yet this is an addictive read. Trying to make sense of the day and the clues as Aiden travels back and forth through the same day in different bodies, trying to remember who he is, who the mysterious Anna is, who is a friend and who an enemy, and ultimately who does kill Evelyn is pretty difficult. It’s breathless stuff. Unless you have a notebook to hand, you may as well not bother trying to work it all out but sit back and enjoy the ride.

There’s not much in the way of character or insight, this is just a crazy story told in a way designed to confuddle and pique your interest. It’s a lot of fun, a breathless rollercoaster read that should do well.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published by Raven Books on 8 February. Thank you to the publishers via Netgalley who allowed me to read an advance copy.

Review: We Own the Sky by Luke Allnutt

Warning. This is a dreadfully sad book. Unless you have a void where your heart should be, you will need tissues and possibly, some consoling biscuits.

we own the sky coverOn the face of it, it’s a bog standard boy meets girl story. Rob meets Anna at university where she is wowing people with her accountancy skills and he is planning a computer revolution. Rob is the narrator of the story and nice enough, though I imagine his school reports read “Could do better if he applied himself.” He is the son of a taxi driver and studies at Cambridge without any of the hang ups I would have there, for example. Anna is more complicated, the product of an odd family life and Rob states a number of times that she could come across as cold or distant.

They marry after graduation, move to London, make money and then tragedy strikes. Anna miscarries two babies. Anna is devastated, or so we imagine – Rob says very little about this at this point. And then they have Jack, a lovely little boy. Rob is the primary carer, all seems well until Jack starts to fall or lose his balance.

I won’t go too much further in the plot as I don’t want to spoil what happens next, but it is emotionally very difficult – for Anna and Rob, and for the reader. All we know from the book’s opening is that Rob is now living alone in Cornwall, drinking hard and picking up women for one night stands. He spends time taking panoramic photos to put on his website We Own the Sky, and the relevance of this title becomes clear as we learn more about Jack.

As you may gather, Rob is not the most sympathetic of characters, but he is very real and flawed in ways that make you know him – he’s that bloke you’re friends with on Facebook. One of the loose themes of the book is how casual acquaintances deal with other people’s losses (spoiler: badly) and how all those posts you see on Facebook can be a by-product of a thousand poor attempts to empathise. When it comes down to it, few of us will always say the right thing in the face of another’s tragedy – either through embarrassment or inexperience – but this book does offer a raw lesson in how to think about enormous life changing issues.

Anna and Rob face their tragedy in different ways, and again, these are absolutely relatable and filled with flaws. These are both very human characters, and excellently portrayed. We Own the Sky is the product of the author’s own cancer diagnosis, and also a way of coming to terms with his father’s death from cancer – and the theme of father-son relations runs throughout the book, with Rob and Jack, Rob and his own father, and other fathers and sons that Rob meets. Between the lines of this is someone who knows exactly the kind of pain experienced and resilience required to face hard times, and someone who also knows that we’re only human and that people fail, especially when facing the loss of a loved one.

Essentially, this is a simple story, well told and full of facts as well as human emotions. It will break you but it does offer you a hand back up again, a way home. It’s a shattering debut.

We Own the Sky is published on 8 February by Trapeze Books. Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for offering me a review copy.


Review: Turning for Home by Barney Norris

This is a slow read. And, for anyone reading advice about writing books that show and don’t tell, it breaks all the rules. Told in the first person by two alternating points of view, Robert and his granddaughter Kate, Turning for Home is nonetheless a fascinating account of the interior world.

So what’s it about? It’s about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, about the effect we can have on other people, about loss, mental illness and it’s about not eating.

Robert is a retired member of British Intelligence who worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He is celebrating his 80th birthday when a former contact comes to see him at home to ask about a new investigation the British government are carrying out following a series of interviews of former combatants on both sides – a project undertaken by Boston College. The interviews brought out more secrets than anyone wished and there is danger of trouble stirring up again. Both men are afraid of repercussions, bother personally and politically.

Among the party guests is Kate, Robert’s granddaughter, who is recovering from a near death experience following an eating disorder. Kate is Robert’s ally, and he enlists her help to have his meeting uninterrupted. In return, he has always stood by her in her difficult relationship with her mother, a relationship seen by Kate as a possible trigger for her mental disorders. The two characters narrate the events of the party day to us, reminiscing over the past and recapping difficult decisions, painful memories and explaining slowly how they came to this point.

The book was inspired, if that’s the word, by the idea of eating – or, more accurately, not eating – as an act of control by the desperate, as a political act and as a personal one. It’s a loose thread but enough to hold the novel together and is thought provoking without the author hitting the reader over the head to make his point.

Both characters are real – grubby, sometimes mistaken, pig headed but ultimately loving and supportive to each other. I especially liked Kate and it can be the case that male characters mess up writing women, but Kate is perfectly done.

It’s a slow read and I think some may be tempted to give up before finishing, but I recommend sticking with it. It’s absorbing and rewarding in ways few books are these days, not an awful lot happens and yet we cover a lot of ground. It’s also worth saving it for a few days when you can devote a chunk of time to each chapter, rather than fleeting pages on the bus or whatever. It’s an intelligent book and asks questions of its readers.

Turning for Home is published on 11 January by Transworld.

My thanks to the publishers for my free copy via Netgalley for review purposes.

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon

So you may remember Joanna Cannon’s debut The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, did STORMING things last year so there’s been quite a lot of anticipation for her follow up book.

three things about elsieLet’s start with how it looks. Covers are important. This has Battenberg cake on it. And jigsaws. Look at that. Already you’re interested, right?

Goats and Sheep was all about friendship and small mysteries and things that happen to you that seem unremarkable in the wider world but have a massive effect on you and hey, so is this. But where Goats and Sheep featured two little girls, this focuses in on an old lady called Florence who lives in sheltered accommodation and doesn’t like it very much.

Florence is a bit of a trouble maker, but once in a while you can see her heart is in the right place. The story opens as she has fallen in her flat and she lies on the floor and spots the mess under the dresser, and starts to tell her story. An unmarried woman with no children, we could assume she has had a dull life, but when an old man turns up at the sheltered accommodation, she is convinced he is not who he says he is, but instead a shadowy figure from her past.

Florence is accompanied everywhere by Elsie, her best friend, and soon also by another resident, Jack, who helps Florence to solve the mystery. Along the way, we come across a supporting cast of characters, some sad, some apparently busybodies, some just witnesses flitting in and out of lives, but all important in their way.

The story was apparently inspired by Joanna Cannon’s work with older people as part of her day job, and serves as a reminder that everyone is someone, and no matter how we may dismiss them, old people have as much right to exist and be haunted by the past and have their own opinions and quirks as much as anyone else.

It’s a lovely story, and I think will put a lot of people in mind of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ although I think I prefer this as there was something about Florence (and especially Jack who I loved as a character) that stuck with me more. However, expect to hear the two books discussed in the same breath. Florence is an engaging narrator for all her foibles, and her unreliability is as much of her charm as anything else.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon is published on 11 January 2018. Thank you to Netgalley for the free review copy.

Books of the Year 2017

I’m sorry, OK? Blogging fell by the wayside in the second half of 2017. I have no real excuse except that life generally happened and I wasn’t there to make time for blogging. Which was a real shame because I read some cracking books in the second half of the year.

In total (and I’m still reading some so it’s an incomplete total) I read 83 books this year. Except I didn’t because I didn’t finish reading 7 of those. So I completed reading 76 books this year and I have 3 on the go at the moment.

Of the 84, 61 were by women authors, 22 by men and 1 was an anthology of essays by a range of authors. There were 15 non-fiction books which is probably the highest number of non-fiction I’ve read since graduating.

Before I do my top 5 of the year, a few honourable mentions:

Richard Russo – Everybody’s Fool

A follow up to one of my favourite books of all time, Everybody’s Fool is set in the cold fictional town of North Bath, USA but the focus shifts from Donald Sullivan to his nemesis, policeman Doug Raymer instead. There are perhaps fewer belly laughs this time around, but this is a poignant and at times funny book, well worthy of a place on your shelf. Plus I was thrilled to be able to see Richard Russo talk about this earlier in the year at Damian Barr’s Literary Salon at The Savoy in London.

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From

A novella about the forthcoming apocalypse and how that chimes with the experiences of new motherhood. London is under water and our nameless heroine and her new baby travel north to try and escape the floods. Not a wasted word, it’s unsettling but with moments of great insight and emotional depth.

And now… *drum roll*

2017-12-22 12.13.41In no particular order… My top 5 books of this year. This is my top 5 reads, not just new books, although most of these are published this year, there is one classic which I’d never got round to before.

Mary Beard – Women and Power

A short treatise on the history of men telling women to shut up, from a wonderful classicist. This examines the history of women’s silence, and how silence has meant a loss of power, influence, wealth and respect in public and private life. This is a short but powerful book and asks some tough questions, meaning to provoke debate and stir up conversation, instead of providing all the answers. A great read from a great woman.

Sarah Winman – Tin Man

A lovely and unusual book about grief, and about male friendships, and love and closed emotions. I know this has made a lot of end of year lists and it’s a quiet book, striking a note as you read and leaving you gladdened that you made time for it. Listen to the blurb: ‘It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things.’ I really recommend reading this.

Tor Udall – A Thousand Paper Birds

My favourite book of the year. Another book about grief, and especially about how men handle grief, and the loss of a loved one. This is another quiet book, full of everyday beauty, but each of the characters is so well portrayed, so flawed and clueless as they navigate the world that you can’t help but be drawn into their struggles. The book concerns the death of Audrey, wife to Jonah, friend (and more?) to Harry. Her death leaves both men devastated but there’s more – for in Kew Gardens, where much of the book is set, sits Chloe, an artist who folds paper birds, and there in Kew runs Milly, a little girl roaming freely among the plants. These lives are intertwined and we can only guess at how as we read. This is emotionally piercing, at times heartbreaking, and in other places an utterly beautiful read. Buy it for everyone you know.

Maggie O’Farrell – I Am, I Am, I Am

Boy, this was a tough read. Devised by O’Farrell as comfort for her daughter who was dreadfully ill, she describes her own brushes with death, to lessen the fear and to bring death into the everyday. Some of the accounts are more tenuous than others but many are real enough, and some are genuinely harrowing. I was emotionally wrung out by the end of reading this, but it’s a beautiful book and thought provoking both about death, and how we handle life.

Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own

This could have been written this year. It’s still so relevant, especially if you’ve read the Beard book, above. Again concerned with the silencing of women, Woolf examines the unsung, using the analogy of Shakespeare’s sister (not the pop group). Famously, she says in this that to write a woman needs two things, a private income and a room of one’s own and goes on to examine why. But there is hope for those of us who have neither and Woolf above all things advocates just pegging away at this, at writing despite the odds, that if we do keep at it, we will raise Shakespeare’s sister and give her voice, that all work is worthwhile if it gives voice to women’s thoughts.

That’s it for 2017! I’ve accumulated a lot of advance copies for books coming out in 2018 so there will be more reviews next year, and I will commence the year with the new Joanna Cannon book, Three Things about Elsie, which is published on 11 January and splendid.

Until then, a very Merry Christmas to book lovers everywhere.

The Upstairs Room – Kate Murray-Browne

This is, primarily, a book about the housing crisis. Don’t let that put you off – but most of the characters are, in one way or another, affected by the current housing situation. It’s not an obvious theme for a spooky tale (I’m resisting calling this an out and out ghost story) but it’s also a portrait of a marriage, and an observation on the flighty nature of employment.

Sound too much? It’s mostly deftly juggled by Murray-Browne, though her characters are at times more annoying than they need to be. The main one, Eleanor, a working mother with two small girls moves into a Victorian house in need of renovation with her husband Richard. Richard is, without a doubt, one of the worst men I’ve ever read. He has already taken on a number of projects throughout their married life, and the house is his latest, while he also works part time and studies for an MA.

Eleanor has her doubts about the house, nothing that she can put down to anything more than a gut feeling but as they try to settle in, they find the upstairs room which is full of foreboding, strange leftover objects and scribblings on the wall from ‘Emily.’ Eleanor’s foreboding turn more serious later when the house starts to make her physically ill and has a detrimental effect on their daughter Rosie.

Eleanor isn’t immediately likeable but I felt for her so much as the book went on. Richard, despite seeing her illness, is still wedded to the renovation and overrides her objections. To pay for the renovations they take a lodger, Zoe, who is at a loose end in her career and her life, having broken up with her boyfriend and walked out of a job. She too is difficult to like, but if you wanted to look at representations of women acting like men – especially when it comes to fear of commitment – then Zoe is perfectly true to life. Her main concern is having regular sex, but she also feels the strange atmosphere of the house and starts to spend more time elsewhere.

I liked that it wasn’t too over the top at the end and I wasn’t sure how much I’d really been affected by it – until I had a sleepless night after I’d finished it. Somehow, it will get under your skin.

The Upstairs Room is published on 27 July by Macmillan.

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Two Cousins of Azov by Andrea Bennett

What a treat to read something as fresh and nicely eccentric as this. A book that’s full of stories, without being a book about stories, if that makes any sense.

Two Cousins of Azov or You can’t pickle love (it has a subtitle) ostensibly tells the story of Gor and Tolya, the two cousins of the title, both in the autumn of their days. Gor is trying to make himself better known as a magician and is busy training up a new assistant Sveta while dealing with a series of mysterious events. There’s a tapping. There’s a dead rabbit outside his door, and the egg he wanted to boil for tea has disappeared. Is he going mad or just getting old? Tolya, meanwhile, is in a hospital following a serious illness and being interviewed for a research project for a trainee doctor. Tolya insists on telling him stories of his childhood and harks way back into the past.

The book is structured to alternate the point of view and this makes it easier for the reader to pick out the symmetry in what’s going on. The tales told by Tolya are full of folk stories and charm, and there seems to be a significance to the events happening to Gor – will the two men find each other? Will they solve the mystery?

There is a wide cast of characters, all with little foibles and quirks, (you do have to concentrate to start with in order to get them all straight in your head) and there’s a lot of food mentioned. Of course as the book goes on, we find the characters are all connected and intertwined somehow, and we start to get to the bottom of the mysteries. The food however, is another matter. I do feel this should come with a selection of snacks available to eat while you read so you don’t spend your whole time feeling hungry, the way I did when I was reading.

The blurb on the back mentioned that if you were a fan of Rachel Joyce (which I am) you would like this. This seems correct – both authors look at exploring the lives of ordinary people where perhaps not much adventurous or exciting happens but what does happen has an impact and is worth telling.

In short, this is a charming novel with plenty of humour and fun. The two main characters are playful storytellers and I enjoyed spending time with them.

Two Cousins of Azov is published by Borough Press on 13 July 2017. Thanks to Borough Press for the review copy.

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

A new Rachel Joyce is always something to look forward to. Joyce specialises in writing about ordinary people, their trials and tribulations and funny ways. Especially their funny ways.

It’s 1988. Frank owns a music shop. He insists on selling only vinyl, despite this being the dawn of the CD. But Frank is not just any music shop owner, a far cry from the intimidating list-making types captured so well in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Frank is welcoming, and happy to broaden his customer’s knowledge and improve their lives through his own knowledge in music. He makes links to different genres, and prescribes them to customers the way a doctor would with medicine.

Frank has attracted a group of friends equally as eccentric. The music shop is housed in a sad, neglected row of shops that a development company is trying to knock down to build ‘luxury’ flats. Scrawled National Front slogans mark many of the boarded up shop fronts. Frank’s friends own many of the businesses nearby and all are uncertain of the future. The Music Shop is, in many ways, a focal point for them all and Frank its unwilling leader. But Frank is alone. We know that his mother Peg bequeathed her love of music to him but she is dead and Frank has no one else. He is a man who needs to be prescribed ‘Verdi Cries’ by 10,000 Maniacs.

One morning, Ilsa Brauchmann, a woman in a green coat stands outside the shop. She catches Frank’s eye and then she faints onto the pavement. It’s a strange start to a strange relationship but Frank finds himself drawn to her and when she asks him to teach him about music they go on a series of ‘dates’ to a local cafe where he talks and brings her records. But Ilsa has a secret and this could ruin everything.

It’s the cast of characters and their interactions that make this book. Frank mostly plays it straight but others are allowed to be as eccentric as possible, and I especially love Kit, Frank’s young clumsy loving music shop assistant who likes to hand-draw their posters.

But there is a serious point to make too, about the pace of technology and development and how it can leave people behind. And then of course, there’s the music. We need a playlist to go with this book, to play as you read. I love that this has such variety, that a plotline about Handel’s Messiah sits alongside Aretha Franklin. Frank talks to people about music the way none of my boyfriends ever did, and their conversations were the poorer for it. Here we can clearly see that music has a power, to change, to heal, to talk to others and that it can take the soul of the lowliest people and make it fly.

The Music Shop is about connecting with others, about how we’re all worth a little time and effort, no matter how low we get. It’s about the wonder of Vivaldi and Miles Davis and Shalamar (yes really).

The Music Shop is published by Doubleday on 13 July 

Thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.